Trailing David Bowie

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It’s time to turn and face the strange: the reality that 2013 has quietly evaded the snake to become the Year of the Bowie.

No one saw it coming, but in the past few months, we got a message from the elusive legend – in the form of an unexpected new album (his first in a decade), videos that showed Bowie can still raise eyebrows, and the top-crust Victoria and Albert Museum’s full-blown exhibit.

If a life can be art, why can’t travel? As we brace for what comes next 40 years after Bowie famously retired his Ziggy Stardust persona on July 3, 1973, (maybe a tour announcement?), what better way to reveal the man who sang about space, fame, and modern love than following in his footsteps?

Bowie pilgrims need only fall to Earth in four key places: Berlin, London, Japan, and (yes) New Mexico. (Just skip L.A., a city Bowie “loathes with a vengeance.” Or at least in 1979.)

Berlin

The Berlin Wall Memorial. (Photograph by Kojach, Flickr)

The Berlin Wall Memorial. (Photograph by Kojach, Flickr)

Yes, Bowie grew up in London, and has lived in New York for most of the past 35 years, but no place is more richly connected with his work than West Berlin. In 1977, he came to recover from years of decadence in a now detested L.A. with Iggy Pop. A city divided appealed to him; he marveled to Rolling Stone at how quickly a wall could become “600 years thick.”

Soon he’d churn out “Heroes,” the greatest of his Berlin rock songs, which – story goes – was inspired by Bowie seeing a kissing couple by the wall, just outside the famed Hansa Studios. You can visit the studio and other Bowie sites with Fritz Music Tours.

The wall itself is mostly gone, but the Berlin Wall Memorial, which is set at the site of the most dramatic failed escape attempts, is well worth seeing.

Some of Bowie’s old haunts are still going, too — including SO36,West Germany’s answer to New York’s CBGB. And you can find Dschungel (Jungle), the legendary discotheque Bowie mentions in his new single, “Where Are We Now?”, on Nürnberger Strasse, a street that embodied the Weimar era that captivated Bowie (then “David Jones”) in his youth. (See “then and now” photos of that era on this fun blog.)

London

Installation at the "David Bowie Is" exhibition. (Photograph courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Installation at the “David Bowie Is” exhibition. (Photograph courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Though he hasn’t lived in England since 1974, Bowie is ever the Londoner. He grew up south of the river, first in Brixton, and then further afield in suburban Bromley.

Jones finally morphed into “Bowie” in the late ’60s bouncing around Soho or at the Giaconda Café in Tin Pan Alley. Though the café remains, by name only (it’s now a forgettable, non-retro restaurant), you can still walk down Denmark Street and imagine it as it looked when David was first coming on to the scene.

Another classic pilgrimage site can be seen on the cover of the album that shot Bowie to stardom, 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The famous photo was taken, in the rain, at 23 Hedden Street. A plaque was recently added to mark the now unrecognizable spot.

But the biggest Bowified destination in London, for now, is definitely Victoria and Albert Museum’s expansive “David Bowie Is” exhibit (through August 11). You’d better book your tickets now if you plan to eyeball Ziggy’s original robes and high heels, never-before-seen storyboards, and hand-drawn sketches by Bowie himself.

Japan

Watching kabuki on TV as a teen catalyzed Bowie’s “ongoing affair with the East,” as he put it in the obscure (but travel-icious) pseudo-documentary Ricochet. In these classical Japanese dance-dramas, male actors (onnagata) often play female parts, which, later, would lend inspiration to Ziggy’s androgynous look. (As Bowie explained: “I couldn’t conceive a Martian culture.”)

Kabuki costumed mannequins and set at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. (Photograph by RW Sinclair, Flickr)

Kabuki costumed mannequins and set at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. (Photograph by RW Sinclair, Flickr)

Kyoto, where kabuki was born – initially with all-female troupes – in the early 1600s, is still home to Japan’s greatest theaters. The Minamiza Kabuki Theater in Gion, the nation’s oldest such venue, hosts the Kao-mise Festival in December.

For more rural, old-school options, there are two original 17th-century thatched theaters on the island of Shodoshima.

New Mexico

Bowie – admittedly one of the less reliable sources of Bowie trivia – has given two takes on the time he spent in New Mexico during the mid ‘70s while filming his first (and best) film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. After bad milk got him sick, he complained that the Land of Enchantment had “very bad karma,” then gushed shortly thereafter to Creem magazine that the rest of the U.S. should strive to be more like it, “so clean and pure.”

Anyway, it was certainly the right setting for a doomed-love drama involving a emotionless (but ingenius) alien and a hotel clerk. Much was filmed around Albuquerque, where Bowie stayed at the Hilton (now the Crowne Plaza). The most iconic sites from the film, though, are unchanged: Fenton Lake State Park (west of Santa Fe), where Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton lands in the opening scene, and White Sands National Monument, which served as a stand-in for Bowie’s home planet.

Of course New Mexico has a long history of being otherworldly. While Roswell declares itself the world’s UFO capital (its Roswell UFO festival takes place in July), Richard Branson is sending his space ships in the other direction from Virgin Galactic. Perhaps one day Bowie will reprise his Ziggy persona and finalize realize his hope of returning home.

Robert Reid has written a couple dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet and regularly appears to discuss travel trends on national TV. Follow him on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.